Monday, June 17, 2019

Astros Cruising on One Leg

By Steve Brenna

Perhaps the most glaring example of tanking gone right over the past 10 years, the Houston Astros appear well on their way to their third consecutive AL West crown and fourth playoff appearance in the last five seasons. They may also be well be on their way to their third straight 100-win season, something that no team has accomplished since the New York Yankees topped 100 wins from 2002-2004.

Houston appears to be unchallenged in their own division, and with the reigning champion Red Sox floundering in third place, unable to fully regain their dominant form from a year ago, the Astros have once again emerged as the favorites to represent the American League in the World Series.

They currently own the majors second-best run differential, and their offense ranks in the top four in all of baseball in batting average, on-base percentage, OPS, home runs, and hits.

Their stacked pitching staff has the lowest batting average against, most strikeouts, and best WHIP of any major league team to go along with the third best team ERA in baseball.

Have I mentioned the Astros are dominating with one hand tied behind their back?

The Lone Star studs are currently without perennial MVP candidate Jose Altuve, an all-star in six of the past seven seasons. The franchise second baseman has missed over a month with a hamstring strain, but is due back with the club by the end of June.

Houston has also been without Altuve's cornerstone mate up-the-middle, Carlos Correa. The 24-year-old former first overall pick has been a force for the Astros over his first 500+ major league games. When he's on the field, that is. The young star has become injury prone over the past three seasons, missing 50 or more games each of the past two seasons and is expected to miss 6-8 weeks due to a freak rib fracture in late May.

How about one of the game's premier leadoff men and a major power threat? The Astros have also been without two-time all-star George Springer for the past three weeks, and all he was doing prior to his hamstring injury was raking to the tune of a 171 OPS+.

Houston is essentially missing their three best offensive pieces and haven't missed a beat, currently rocking a 10-3 record in the month of June. The club's resilience can be partially attributed to the major contributions they're getting from "second-tier" players like Josh Reddick, Michael Brantley, and Robinson Chirinos. After two injury plagued seasons in 2016-2017, the fully-healthy Brantley is back to all-star form, and currently ranks in the top-10 in baseball in hits and doubles.

After a successful first campaign with Houston in 2017, Reddick had a down year in 2018, but is back to hitting at a .300 clip and supplying his usual stout defense in right field. At age 35, Chirinos appears on pace for the first 20-homer season of his career while handling one of the majors' best pitching staffs

Oh yeah, and then there's some guy named Bregman over at third base who's blossoming into an MVP-caliber superstar. The 25-year-old former second-overall pick is entering his prime, and completes baseball's premier foursome along with Altuve, Springer, and Correa. 35 home runs, 100+ RBIs, and plenty of great sound bites look like a lock for 2019.

As if the Murderer's Row line-up isn't enough, Houston's starting rotation features the two-headed monster of Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, who at age 36 is doing his best Nolan Ryan impression. The former Cy Young and MVP winner still sits in the upper 90s with his fastball deep into games, and is looking as dominant as his prime years in Detroit.

Couple that with the surprising dominance of Wade Miley, who's resurrected a career that appeared on the brink, and Houston's rotation appears locked and loaded for another deep playoff run.

Do I really need to go on? I suppose I could also mention that the Astros bullpen is far from a weak spot, with closer Roberto Osuna looking like an all-star, and right-handers Will Smith and Ryan Pressley sporting sub-1.50 ERAs while seeing regular action.

The club expects the return of Altuve and Springer late this month, and barring any further injuries could be 100% healthy by the all-star break. At full strength its almost not fair, and it doesn't take a crystal ball to foresee a rematch of the 2017 World Series with the Dodgers looking like the class of the National League. I for one would love to see a Twins/Astros match-up in the ALCS, something we've never seen before.

So for any Orioles fans still standing, take solace. This is a team that lost 324 games from 2011-2013, and has become a premier powerhouse and the poster children for tanking. Loyalty in lean times can be repaid.

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